Juneteenth, or June 19, commemorates when the last slaves in the U.S. were told (finally) of their freedom. It happened in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865—two years after slavery was formally ended. Word of the Emancipation Proclamation was slow and inconsistent, but Juneteenth—the combination of “June” and “19th”—was the day that all previous slaves finally knew that they were slaves no more. It is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery, and is sometimes called Freedom Day.
So, a moment of truth. I’m a 35-year-old African-American woman, and I’ve never celebrated Juneteenth. It’s something I’ve thought about in passing, especially in the past few years, but I was never quite sure how to celebrate or honor it in a meaningful way. This year though—this year feels bigger. Different. And I wanted to make good on my thoughts.
The most common Juneteenth celebrations include parades, BBQs, and festivals. In today’s world, however, many have been canceled or reconfigured with the current pandemic and social-distancing rules. The Juneteenth festival in Cincinnati, for example, typically contains what is stated in addition to vendors (food, books, goods), live performances, and even a children’s pavilion with readings, crafts, face painting, and horseback riding. This year, however, the 33rd Annual Juneteenth celebration is moved to a virtual celebration streaming on local access channels, YouTube, and at juneteenthcincinnati.org. The virtual celebration will include performances and oral histories of the significance of the Ohio River in the freeing of slaves.
“We are not having the celebration in Eden Park [in Cincinnati] because even if everything is open up, people will still not be comfortable in larger crowds. However we still want the community to be able to continue some of the traditions,” says Lydia Morgan, Cincinnati’s Juneteenth organizer of 33 years.
Now that restaurants are opening up dine-in options, some elect to gather with friends and enjoy food and laughter as a means for expressing Black joy. “As a people who have been reduced to serving others, we have to prioritize that we are worthy of joy and we can be in service to ourselves,” says Jasmine Coaston, Director of Community Affairs at the City of Cincinnati. “We are worthy of our own joy. We need to fill up our own cup.” She requested vacation time for this day since it was not observed as a day off by her employer. Many nod to the idea of Black joy and celebration as a form of activism and resistance, and this day seems commemorative of that fact.
So how can you celebrate the holiday, meaningfully? (Particularly for those who are non-Black, as well?) There are a few ways. It’s important to recognize that committing to Black freedom and liberation year-round can take different forms.
- Take the time to educate yourself about the holiday, and the struggles that Black people face (and have faced) because of the color of their skin.
- Read books about the history of Juneteenth, along with books about privilege and systemic racism that will highlight the importance of this holiday.
- Use your voice to advocate for Juneteenth to be observed as a national holiday, similar to July 4th. Some companies, cities, and states have recently created policies for Juneteenth to be a paid holiday, however the majority of companies, cities, and states do not have similar policies. Signing petitions and expressing the need to executive leadership of companies and elected officials are ways to make this a more widely celebrated holiday. Even if your company doesn’t have a specific holiday, using a vacation day and sending an email explaining the holiday and the reason for using a personal vacation day for it is a way to advocate for change.
- Purchasing from Black businesses (not just on Juneteenth, but year-round) is another way to honor this holiday. Being able to participate and thrive in an economy is honoring the freedom granted to slaves.
“Simply joining Black people you already have a community with and amplifying their celebration is also acceptable,” says Dr. Latisha Bates, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence and Community Partnership at the University of Cincinnati. She also encourages and emphasizes the importance of sharing recipes and stories as the heart of community—in particular for Black communities, and honors our ancestors before us.
As for me? I’m personally deciding to watch my city’s festival virtually with my husband and children while eating food from a local Black-owned restaurant. We are still sheltering in place but that does not stop us from learning more about our heritage, talking with our kids about freedom, and creating our own traditions. However you decide to celebrate, make sure it’s authentic. Pick something that resonates with your soul, because that’s what freedom is truly about.
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